It’s still sinking in that the Cleveland Browns will be a must-watch team this season. They finally have a star quarterback in Baker Mayfield, which has given them the flexibility to be aggressive with their roster construction. The biggest move they made to attack their current playoff window was to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. at the start of the new league year.
The Beckham trade gives the Browns a potentially dominant offensive duo, something the wide receiver is amped about. Beckham went as far as saying Mayfield is “going to be a Hall of Famer” in an interview with GQ and that he plans on helping the Browns become the new Patriots — with multiple championships along the way.
Those proclamations seem bold, but Cleveland truly does have the chance to be a perennial playoff contender if Mayfield can pick up where he left off last season. Once Freddie Kitchens took over playcalling duties halfway through the year, Mayfield and the Browns’ offense exploded. They looked like a team that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Now, they have arguably the best receiver in the league, too.
The new pairing of Beckham and Mayfield is more than the Browns adding an elite weapon to their team, though. They’ve also brought together a quarterback and receiver who perfectly suit each other’s skillsets.
Mayfield can take advantage of Beckham’s yards-after-catch ability
Mayfield put on a remarkable showing in the second half of the season.
From Week 9 through the end of the regular season, he had a passer rating of 106.2, according to Sports Info Solutions. That ranked sixth among all quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in that timespan.
He should be one of the best quarterbacks in the league if his upward trajectory continues.
Not only is Mayfield an ascending talent, but Beckham should fit in seamlessly in the offense. As a receiver, Beckham does everything well, but he really shines when he can catch the ball in stride and create explosive plays after the catch.
Beckham excelled on slant routes in 2018. According to Sports Info Solutions, he saw 19 targets on slant routes that went for 192 yards. That 10.1 yards per target was good for eighth in the league among all receivers with at least 10 slant route targets.
Mayfield had great success with slant routes last season, as well, despite not having a receiver with the dynamism of Beckham. With Kitchens as the playcaller for eight games, Mayfield went 12 of 19 on slant routes for 137 yards and three touchdowns, giving him a passer rating of 124.3. Per Sports Info Solutions, 89.5 percent of Mayfield’s passes on slant routes were on target.
Those numbers are better than Manning’s. Last year on slants, Manning had a passer rating of 94.2 and 87.2 percent of his passes were on target.
Mayfield’s ball placement on these throws allows his receivers to be in prime position to pick up big chunks of yards after the catch. This throw from the preseason is a good example of that. It’s a short pass, but Mayfield places the ball right where it needs to be for Antonio Callaway to catch it in stride for a long touchdown.
Now, Beckham will be on the other end of these passes, which should terrify the defenses that play Cleveland this year.
Beckham should have more opportunities deep down the field
Let’s continue looking at Mayfield’s performance through the lens of Kitchens’ stint as the playcaller since he will continue to do so in the upcoming season.
On passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, Mayfield was much more productive than Manning. In the eight-game sample where Kitchens was calling plays, Mayfield threw more touchdown passes in this scenario than Manning did the entire season.
Here’s how they compare on these throws.
Mayfield, in the final eight games: 37 of 72, 1,000 yards, six touchdowns, four interceptions, 107.4 passer rating, 62.5 percent of passes on target
Manning, in the entire 2018 season: 54 of 114, 1,492 yards, four touchdowns, five interceptions, 87.1 passer rating, 57.9 percent of passes on target
The 38-year-old Manning is starting to see some of the physical decline that hits all quarterbacks as they age. His arm just isn’t as strong as it used to be and that capped some of Beckham’s explosive potential.
This throw against the 49ers last season shows that. It should have been an easy touchdown, but Manning didn’t put enough on the ball.
Mayfield has a stronger arm than Manning, he’s more accurate, and he’s just getting started in his career.
Mayfield was one of the best passers against pure man coverage late last season
For a quarterback, a big benefit of having an elite wide receiver is being able to rely on him to consistently get open against man coverage. Mayfield didn’t have that last year and he still shredded man coverage over that same eight-game stretch when Kitchens was calling plays.
Here's how Mayfield and Manning fared on throws against Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2 Man.
Mayfield, in the final eight games: 58 of 92, 721 yards, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, 105.4 passer rating
Manning, in the entire 2018 season: 121 of 211, 1,538 yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, 94.5 passer rating
Mayfield’s sample almost matched Manning’s touchdown passes against man coverage and blew his touchdown percentage out of the water.
That success bodes well for Beckham. According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception charting, Beckham is a man coverage-destroying machine:
The two best recorded seasons in #ReceptionPerception's success rate vs. man coverage metric now belong to the same player: Odell Beckham.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) March 11, 2019
Still working my way through 2018 samples. pic.twitter.com/PbNXwKQePt
Mayfield will be an upgrade for Beckham in the quick passing game and the deep passing game. The numbers also suggest he’ll help Beckham continue to feast on man coverage next season.
This is a match made in football heaven. The rest of the AFC — and the NFL — needs to be on watch for the 2019 Cleveland Browns.